Georgia House bill seeks to address vacant properties problem in Augusta, other cities



Shawn Rhodes has been watching the house on Knox Avenue fall apart since August 2010.

“First they kicked in the door,” said Rhodes, an Augusta environmental code enforcement officer who tracks down owners of abandoned houses, like the windowless structure that used to be a three-bedroom, one-bath home for someone.

Trespassers have stripped the interior of anything remotely valuable and have been working on taking off the exterior aluminum siding in recent weeks. It has since become a haven for drug users and vagrants.

“See there, drugs,” said Rhodes, pointing out a wadded plastic bag lying amid the debris on the front walk that leads to the wrecked entrance. Inside, the floor is covered with fragments of the crumbling ceiling, bits of wood, trash, a discarded brandy bottle and two abandoned toy cars.

Rhodes said it is a shame, but it isn’t unusual.

Augusta code enforcement officials have more than 160 such houses on the books and dozens more that Rhodes and others are researching, looking for someone to take responsibility before the city has to claim the property and demolish it with taxpayer funds.

The number of vacant and abandoned houses is growing steadily, said Pam Costabile, the city’s code enforcement manager, and it can be difficult to keep track of them all.

A recently passed bill, awaiting Gov. Nathan Deal’s signature, is supposed to help cities with that task. House Bill 110 establishes a standard for cities that want to maintain lists of vacant properties, requiring owners to register and setting fines for those who do not, said state Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro, who sponsored the Senate version.

“When I was mayor of Waynesboro, this was becoming a very big problem,” Stone said. Vacant and abandoned homes depress property values, become centers for crime and take taxable property off government books, he said.

Many of these properties are bank-owned, foreclosures or simply homes that owners left behind when they couldn’t pay the mortgage.

Often, mortgages are bought and sold so many times that it is next to impossible to determine which bank owns an abandoned home, Stone said.

“Ownership can be difficult to trace when a mortgage has been transferred to another bank,” he said. “Sometimes, there’s no way to tell which bank to contact.”

Costabile said sometimes, if a property is in really bad shape, the bank will avoid foreclosure and responsibility for the problem. When that happens, the property is in limbo, with no one willing to step up and take care of it.

Many municipalities were tackling the problem in different ways, and some were beginning to create wide-ranging sets of fees and fines associated with the local regulations, Stone said. House Bill 110 creates a basic standard for local governments to use, he said.

“It allows for the registration of these properties and establishes a uniform standard,” he said.

As far as Rhodes can tell, the house on Knox Avenue isn’t bank-owned, but who and where the owner is remains a mystery. Property records say the owner is Hazel Anderson of Shoreline Drive, but that information is no longer correct, Rhodes said.

“We are good at finding people but can’t find anybody for this one,” she said.

Without an owner, the house will become a “public officer” case, meaning that the city will go through the legal steps to seize the property and tear down the structures, Costabile said.

Her budget for such demolitions is about $100,000 per year, which will take care of about 25 houses, she said. She gets further behind each year.

Costabile said she isn’t certain how the new law will help her do her job because the city already has a pretty good database of abandoned properties.

She knows what will help, however.

“Money and manpower,” she said.




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